Blogging has helped Sun Microsystems ditch its "too corporate" label and restore credibility
When Sun Microsystems first considered jumping into the nascent world of corporate blogging, supporters found an unexpected champion for their cause.
Tim Bray, director of Web technologies, was already a blogger when he joined in March 2004 and was one of a handful of people who wanted to implement blogging at Sun. What surprised him was when president and COO Jonathan Schwartz showed up unannounced at a blog brainstorming meeting to offer his support. Bray credits Schwartz with helping remove roadblocks, including easing policies preventing employees from talking to the public without VP-level and legal approval.
Schwartz not only approved of Sun blogging, but embraced it himself, becoming one of the first high-profile executive bloggers. Sun's embrace of blogs is unprecedented, particularly because it allows an executive such as Schwartz to "speak his mind with no scrubbing and no legal oversight. Jonathan writes his own blog and posts it himself," says EVP and CMO Anil Gadre.
But it would be a mistake to focus only on high-profile blogs, such as Schwartz's, warns Andy Lark, former VP of global communications and marketing at Sun, who helped implement Sun's foray into blogging.
"The unfortunate thing about blogging is many people look at only the A-list blogs," says Lark, now CMO at LogLogic and a prolific blogger himself. "That misses the point of blogging, which is about participating with your community and talking with your customers. And Sun has enabled thousands of employees to engage in a real dialogue with their customers."
Sun's embrace of blogging was less bureaucratic and mired in red tape than one might think because it answers an important question, says Lark: "When you are looking at your business goals, how do you rally employees to the next destination and take it where it needs to go next?"
"There was a feeling that the company had become too corporate and blue suit and not community-centric enough," adds Bray.
So after working with executives and legal staff for about a month, Sun developed simple guidelines with do's and don'ts, and set up a server that now hosts more than 1,500 actively blogging Sun employees.
The relative ease with which Sun slipped into blogging reflects the company's culture, asserts Gadre. After 18 years at Sun, Gadre says it's not surprising that blogging happened organically, and not because of a corporate mandate resulting from blogging being the hot and popular thing to do.
"Blogs are just another tool in which you can drive enormous discussion," says Gadre. "And I believe we are in a day and age when leaders are expected to speak their mind and be quite transparent."
Beyond Schwartz's blog, which has garnered most of the media attention, Sun's blogging has been successful because it has opened direct lines of communications between the developers and users of Sun's technology. Customers, partners, and others can directly reach out to Sun's developers and engineers on any topic on their minds.
"This has been the beauty of blogs: that they're authentic," says Karen Kahn, VP of global PR. "Our bloggers have credibility because this is not about marketing. We made a conscious decision not to use this as just another marketing channel. Because the people reading and interacting with the bloggers are saying, 'Don't market to me; don't spin me; talk to me.'"
The company credits the blogs for helping restore luster to the its brand. After the dot-com bust, many in the industry and media were still looking for someone to blame for all that had gone wrong. As Sun was a bit slower than other tech titans to recover, the company made a convenient whipping boy.
"We had our share of bad news in the press, with people asking if the company was still viable," says Gadre. "But when we talked with customers face to face, they understood what we were doing and asked why we didn't tell this story to more people. But it's not a story you can tell just through ads or press releases. It's a story that also needs to be told through an unfiltered pipeline. The more touch points we have with our community, the more windows we have into the company's thinking."
"Blogs have helped with our turnaround and have helped restore credibility with the market," says Kahn. "The market... can ask questions or vent frustrations. It's remarkable that so many people can have a direct dialogue with the company."
Dan Farber, VP of editorial at CNET Networks, credits Sun's use of blogs as part of its comeback. Farber says many companies have followed in Sun's footsteps, and more will continue to do so. But blogs require credibility to be taken seriously. And that means having a willingness to debate and discuss ideas, and not just shill products.
"Sun needed to get their story exposed, and this was one way to do it," says Farber. "They made sure it was a dialogue, instead of the old style of PR of putting out a press release."
AT A GLANCE
Company: Sun Microsystems
CEO: Scott McNealy
Headquarters: Santa Clara, CA
Revenues and latest earnings: $11 billion for fiscal year 2005; Q1 revenues for fiscal year 2006 were $2.7 billion, an increase of 3.7% compared with the $2.6 billion in revenues reported for Q1 of fiscal year 2005
Competitors: IBM, HP, Dell
Key trade publications: Computerworld, eWeek, InformationWeek, NetworkWorld
PR budget: $12 million
VP of brand experience and community marketing
Ingrid Van Den Hoogen
VP of worldwide PR
Marketing services agencies:
PR: Bite Communications; MWW Group; Lois Paul & Partners
Advertising: Butler, Shine, Stern, & Partners; Starcom Worldwide
Direct marketing: Gyro International